For her feature film debut, writer/director Mirrah Foulkes takes on the classic puppet show of “Punch and Judy” and dives into the lives of the creative forces behind it (played by Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman), but gives their story a bit of a twist. While at the Sundance Film Festival last week, Daily Dead had the chance to catch up with Foulkes about taking on this story for her first feature-length directorial effort, and she discussed her experience collaborating with Vice, choosing both Wasikowska and Herriman for the film’s titular roles, and the unique style she created with Judy & Punch.
Can you talk about taking on this story? It’s really ambitious, but I think you did a great job.
Mirrah Foulkes: Yeah, and it's an ambitious first film, but I don't know, it came to me through Vice. They wanted to develop something with me and they kind of had this idea floating around in-house to do a live-action retelling of Punch and Judy's story. I wanted to do it with them because they're incredibly flexible, where they wanted me to just take it and run with it and turn it into whatever I wanted it to be. So, I felt like I had a lot of creative freedom and I didn't feel like I'd have that opportunity elsewhere, because they were so supportive of me as a first-timer.
And what was your prior relationship with Punch and Judy before this film?
Mirrah Foulkes: Didn't have one. As Australians, it's a very British thing, and then as Australians, we're sort of very familiar with it, but not that familiar.
What were your initial thoughts when you started digging into the history?
Mirrah Foulkes: Well, what I found to be really interesting was what it evolved from. It comes out of commedia dell'arte in Italy back in the 17th century, back then it was marionette puppets. I thought that was a very interesting turning point, the devolution from marionettes to really rudimentary, shitty hand puppets. That was when I went, "I think that's my in, it's gonna have to be period, it's gonna have to be set back then, because I want to work with marionettes. I'm not interested in those shitty little hand puppets." So, I figured I wanted to make a kind of fictionalized or fabricated origin story about where these hand puppets might have come from.
Can you discuss your casting decisions? Both Mia and Damon are great.
Mirrah Foulkes: Yeah, well, Mia I knew and I really wanted to work with her and I felt like she'd be really fitting. I wanted to try and make the film with all Australians if I could, once I realized I was going to shoot it in Australia. We've got a really incredible wealth of talent there and I wanted to really showcase some of the lesser-seen actors. There are a lot of theater actors in the cast that don't do a lot of film stuff. But because of the theatrical nature of the dialogue, I felt like it would be useful to pull in some of those people.
Once Mia came on board, then it was about finding someone with the right kind of chemistry to play Punch, and I've always admired Damon a lot as an actor. I've worked with him as an actor before, but I've never directed him and he just put down a really, really great audition, and I auditioned a lot of people—Australians, Americans, Brits, all over the place. He won the role because he was really, really good.
As a kid, I grew up knowing Punch and Judy. I think it's really interesting how this is Judy and Punch, and I feel like it's a really nice flip of what we could expect this story to be, especially in this day and age, and I was wondering if you could talk about going into this character of Judy and making this about her journey.
Mirrah Foulkes: I couldn't not in this day and age, or any day and age. It is amazing and ludicrous that this really violent, misogynistic puppet play exists for children by and large, and it's carried through all of this history and continues to exist in this really simplistic, stupid way. So, I couldn't have made a movie about it without inverting that. I thought, “What about if we turn it on its head and speak to those things that were bubbling below the surface?” That was always the movie for me, and that was what Vice wanted to do, too. It just felt obvious. That was the appeal of it, to explore why this has carried on in history.
Before we go, I’d love to dig into the visual style of this film. Because it's very much a period piece, and yet there's a part of it that feels timeless, almost like you can't quite put your finger on it, which really lends itself to the film’s overall atmosphere. It’s great.
Mirrah Foulkes: That was the intention. I wanted to anchor it in a very specific period, but then I wanted to have the ability to break rules all over the place. I had no interest in making it historically correct, or into a stuffy, historical period film. I felt like it was important definitely to anchor so that everyone had a cohesive sense of everything, but we break rules all the time in the language—the language is absurd and often very contemporary and sometimes we throw some “ye olde” stuff in there, too. Language was the big one, but then there were certain rules about what we would never do. I knew I wanted it to feel like it was somewhere in Europe. I didn't care that it was somewhere specific, so we have no Australian or American accents in the film, but there are all kinds of European accents and UK accents in there.
I definitely didn't want it to feel like Australia visually, either, so we had to do a lot of work to shoot around gumtrees, for example. It's just kind of bizarre and miraculous that we were even able to shoot it in Australia, and that really was because of one location, because we couldn't afford to build anything and obviously those buildings didn't exist in Australia at that time. And then Stefan [Duscio], my DP [director of photography], and I talked a lot about economy with the way we use the camera and partly that was practical, because we had a very quick shoot. We wanted to work fast and economically, but tell the story elegantly. We used a lot of Steadicam, and we had to prep the shit out of it. We just had to be very prepared because we had to hit the ground running. We had a lot of things that slowed us down. We had kids and animals and stunts and all of that sort of stuff. It was tough.
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[Photo credit: Photo by Ben King via the Sundance Institute.]